Each week Press Democrat staff writer Eric Branch will grade the Niners' performance. Following are his grades and comments on Sunday's effort in a 16-14 loss at Atlanta:



Some good (21-of-32, 188 yards, 1 TD) and some bad (2 INTs) for Alex Smith. Very bad. In fact, the bad, as Smith admitted, prevented a victory. You've heard this before, but here goes: Smith often looked jittery when pressured.

<b>Running backs


Frank Gore did his typical thing (137 yards on 28 touches) - to the point of exhaustion. When he was forced to exit momentarily, rookie Anthony Dixon had a nice second-effort to get three yards on third-and-1. Brian Westbrook ... was he in Atlanta?

<b>Receivers/tight ends


Mike Johnson said he wanted to involve all the offensive playmakers, but besides Gore and Vernon Davis ... how many of these guys really scare defenses? Michael Crabtree (5 catches, 58 yards) had just one second-half catch and Josh Morgan, who dropped a catchable third-down pass, has three catches the past two weeks.

<b>Offensive line


The Falcons, who entered ranked sixth in the NFL in sacks, managed just one as LT Joe Staley quieted John Abraham (1 tackle). Atlanta managed to hit Smith on just three occasions.

<b>Defensive line


A week after Thomas Jones and Jamaal Charles ran wild, the Falcons one-two combo of Michael Turner (16 carries, 50 yards) and Jason Snelling (7, 31) was quiet.



Parys Haralson had the second two-sack game of his career, Travis LaBoy also nailed Matt Ryan and did you see that hit Patrick Willis laid on Turner?



Until his last-minute heroics, this group made Ryan (67.3 QB rating) look less than ordinary. S Taylor Mays had a team-high 11 tackles, Shawntae Spencer had his second INT in as many games and Nate Clements added a pick ... and a critical fumble which prevents an A grade.

<b>Special teams


Dominique Zeigler's punt block and Mays' resulting tiptoe number in the end zone for a TD could have been a game-winner. On the bad side, Kyle Williams has yet to enliven the return games and the Falcons averaged 16.0 yards on two punt returns and 25.7 yards on three kickoff returns.



Plenty of folks expected the reeling Niners to get hammered Sunday. But they hung together through a week that provided a season's worth of distractions. Still, Mike Singletary always talks about finishing games.